One of the most unsettling and mysterious child crime cases of the late 20th Century?is only now playing out in a New York City court. The sad story revolves around schoolboy Etan Patz, who disappeared one day in 1979 while traveling to school, and whose body has never been found. Now considered a murder case, legal proceedings have commenced in downtown Manhattan.
A high-profile case that has haunted New Yorkers and others for decades, it is one of the best-known American childhood disappearance cases. It motivated Congress to pass the Missing Children’s Assistance Act in 1984, which in turn spurred the creation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Occasionally over the years, people phoned the Patz family, claiming to be the grown-up Etan. Some even showed up at their home. They were hounded by the media and self-described psychics, claiming to have information on the missing boy.
And now in 2015,??Pedro Hernandez, 53, is on trial for this murder that occurred 36 years ago. At the time Etan vanished, Hernandez was a teenager working at a food shop near Etan’s home. Prosecutors say he lured Etan to the basement of the store, strangled him and disposed of the body. Hernandez confessed to the murder on tape in 2012. Previously a neighborhood handyman named Othniel Miller had been questioned about the crime. And a man named Jose Antonio Ramos, who had dated one of Etan’s babysitters, was also a suspect but never admitted to the crime. He served more than 20 years in a Pennsylvania prison on an unrelated child molestation case.
In 2001 Etan’s parents took the anguished step of declaring their son legally dead, and Ramos was brought up on charges in the Patz case. However, in 2012 Hernandez apparently confessed to the killing, and was arrested.
After three and a half decades, this case is now before a jury. Among the first to testify were Etan’s mother Julie, as well as his childhood friend Chelsea Altman, who spoke wistfully of the little boy they once knew.
As a lifelong resident of New York City, and only a few years older than Etan, I have long been touched by this mournful story. Everyone talked about it back in 1979, and it has become a touchstone and a warning that New York parents share with their own children. I have spoken about it with my daughters, and discussed its impact on parenting. It stands in stark contrast to recent stories about parents who have encountered trouble for letting their children walk unsupervised at length.
There are so many missing and unexplained factors in this case. Even with confessions, no body has ever been found, and that may be the toughest part not only in the conviction but in allowing for the family and friends of Etan Patz to have any true sense of closure. To have one’s child vanish seemingly into thin air with no real paper trail must be heartbreaking.